Even music lovers who wouldn’t be caught dead yelling “Free Bird!” at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert will find much to appreciate in Stephen Kijak’s documentary about the legendary Southern rock band. Perfectly timed to coincide with the band’s upcoming farewell tour, If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd received its world premiere at SXSW and will air later this year on CMT.
It’s not surprising that the film expertly tells its story in a way that will prove engaging for fans and non-fans alike. Director Kijak has plenty of experience in the format, having previously made documentaries about such musicians as Scott Walker, The Rolling Stones, Backstreet Boys, X Japan and bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Not just for fans.
The film relates, in mostly chronological order, the story of the band which began in Jacksonville, Florida, and which nearly came to an end with the 1977 plane crash in a Mississippi forest that killed six people including founding member Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines. The band reformed 10 years later with Johnny Van Zant taking his brother’s place as lead vocalist. Much of the film is narrated by Gary Rossington, the last surviving member of the original lineup, and includes copious amounts of archival photos and footage and interviews from both past and present.
My favorite piece of trivia revealed in the film involves the origin of the band’s name. They originally called themselves One Percent but changed it early on after one of the members heard the popular Allen Sherman song “Hello Muddah Hello Fadduh” in which he sings about a camper named “Leonard Skinner.” That also happened to be name of a local high school teacher, so with a little spelling variation the new moniker was adopted. Who’d a thunk?
The band, who rehearsed in a shack on the edge of the swamp (the easier for Ronnie to engage in one of his favorite pastimes, fishing), struggled at first. They were turned down by nine major record companies until musician/songwriter Al Kooper signed them to his burgeoning record label. Kooper relates how when he first heard them play “Sweet Home Alabama” he told Ronnie, “I’ll see you in the studio tomorrow. This is a hit record.” The instant classic was written as a riposte to the Neil Young songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama” and gleefully calls out Young by name.
Lynyrd Skynyrd got their big break when Kooper arranged for them to tour with The Who as their opening act. It was during those massive shows that they first exposed “Free Bird,” the song that became their anthem, to large audiences. Despite their success on the tour, when it was over they went back to playing small clubs and sharing motel rooms until gradually working themselves up to headliner status. They played in front of a large Confederate flag, a trademark that was forced on them by their record company and which they later regretted for its divisive and offensive aspects.
The devastating plane crash inevitably becomes the film’s sorrowful centerpiece. The archival interviews with several of the members who were on the plane that went down are harrowing in their details. Drummer Artimus Pyle becomes overcome with emotion when he says, “The one thing I want the world to know about my band is how bravely they met their death.”
Despite having died in that plane crash 41 years ago, Ronnie’s presence dominates the film. Not so much from the audio excerpts of radio interviews he conducted, but rather from the vivid recollections of his friends, family and bandmates. They all describe him in glowing terms, although not ignoring his fierce temper that, when he was drunk, could often erupt into violence.
“He was the boss,” Kooper says. “I feared him.”
While Lynyrd Skynyrd have never been a critical darling, they’ve developed a large following of fans who have devotedly listened to their music for nearly a half-century. If I Leave Here Tomorrow, its title taken from the song for which they’ll always be best known, proves a fitting cinematic tribute.
Production company: Passion Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Kijak
Producers: John Battsek, Diane Becker
Executive producer: John Miller-Monzon
Director of photography: Derek Wiesehahn
Editor: Claire Didier
Venue: SXSW Film Festival